HONG KONG – Denise Ho has been pulled from concerts, her records are banned in China and she has been smeared as “poison,” but the Cantopop star says standing with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement outshines all the damage to her career.
The short-haired 42-year-old is a rare and instantly recognizable face among the masked crowds at this summer’s huge rallies.
She marches with the masses, gives outspoken television interviews calling for democracy and condemning alleged police brutality, drawing attention to the crisis in her city on a Twitter feed with nearly 250,000 followers.
It is a bold stance.
From actor Jackie Chan to billionaire magnate Li Ka-shing, most famous Hong Kongers have chosen silence or made cryptic middle-ground calls for peace as Beijing scours the landscape for critics.
But Ho, who went to Australia to spread the word about the protests before traveling to the United States, said she had “no regret” over her strident critiques of the mainland.
She believes artists who stay quiet have made bigger sacrifices. “They have lost total freedom of speech. As a Hong Konger, it’s my responsibility to stand up and stand with (the protesters). This is really not the time to think about your own career and personal benefits,” she added.
The movement, which is avowedly leaderless, has few figureheads — diluting the risk of infighting or the impact of arrests and harassment.
“Of course, because I am a public figure or celebrity, people recognize me,” said Ho at a recent event. But she explained: “There is really no leader, no particular organization leading the movement. And that’s the beauty of it, and that’s why this movement has been able to go on for such a long time.”
Initially sparked by opposition to a proposed law that would have allowed people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, the protests soon spilled out into a broader anti-government movement calling for democratic reforms.
The protests have become increasingly violent, and the weekend saw fires, tear gas and police beatings as a minority of hard-core protesters clashed with riot police in the city center.
Yet hundreds of thousands of people have also taken part in peaceful demonstrations across the city — including on Aug. 28, when Ho addressed a rally in central Hong Kong against alleged sexual violence by police.
“I see myself as one of the participants of this movement. Hopefully I can give some moral support to these young people, to let them know that they are not alone in this fight,” she said.
Ho is no stranger to activism — she made the leap from pop to politics five years ago during Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement,” calling on Beijing to allow fully free elections.
That won her instant opprobrium in China — and her music a blanket ban.
She had been an international Cantopop star, her ballads released under the stagename HOCC, who enjoyed success on the Chinese mainland.
In addition to her music career she was a strident advocate for LGBT rights, having come out as gay in 2012, and also turned her hand to acting, appearing in a film by Hong Kong director Johnnie To.
She joined the Umbrella Movement when it erupted in September 2014, just a month after her last visit to mainland China.
Soon she joined pro-democracy protesters who occupied a central business district and was arrested when the site was dismantled more than two months later.
As her reputation for outspoken campaigning grew, in June 2016 French cosmetics giant Lancome canceled a promotional concert at which Ho was due to perform. The move sparked an outcry among Hong Kongers who said the decision was due to criticism from China’s state-run media, after the Global Times accused Lancome of cooperating with “Hong Kong poison” and “Tibet poison” — a reference to Ho’s praise for the Dalai Lama.
In July, Ho again infuriated Beijing by urging the U.N. rights council to put pressure on China over its “tightening grip” on semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
The city was returned to China from Britain in 1997 and enjoys far greater liberties than the mainland.
The Chinese government hit back, with a foreign ministry spokesman describing the singer as “delusional.”
But her activism has won new fans in Hong Kong. Ho is “so cool,” a protester at a recent anti-sexual violence rally said, adding “she sacrificed everything” for her beliefs.